To be meaningful, justice should be swift and sure. The death penalty is neither. It prolongs pain for victims’ families, dragging them through an agonizing and lengthy process that promises an execution at the beginning but often results in a different sentence in the end. Meanwhile, it dedicates scarce resources to a small handful of cases while the real needs of the vast majority of victims’ families are ignored.
Justice Neither Swift Nor Sure
- A study examining the experiences of families of murder victims found that those navigating the legal process in a state without the death penalty exhibited better psychological and physical health as well as a higher overall satisfaction with the criminal justice system than those facing the same challenges in a state with the death penalty.
- In a letter to lawmakers, 179 Connecticut murder victims’ families called for the death penalty’s repeal because it “is a false promise that goes unfulfilled, leaving victims’ families frustrated and angry after years of fighting the legal system.”
The death penalty fails to meet the real needs of surviving families
- The death penalty’s complex process diverts millions of dollars and attention from the critical services that victims’ families need to help them heal, including specialized grief counseling, financial assistance, and ongoing support. In most states, these services are sorely lacking.
- The few services that are available are often provided through the prosecutor’s office, so when the criminal case is over the services for the victim’s family end along with it.
- For families in unsolved murders, there is the added pain of never learning what happened to their loved ones. The people responsible remain undetected while countless law enforcement hours are spent chasing a handful of executions instead of solving more cases.
The death penalty divides families when they need each other most
The death penalty doesn’t serve victim’s families, who are dragged along through decades of appeals and uncertainty.
– Sarah Withrow King, Evangelicals for Social Action
- The death penalty has split families apart, forcing relatives with different views on the issue to engage in a polarizing debate at the time when they need each other most
- It’s supposed to be reserved for the “most heinous” murders, but that implies that most murders are ordinary. There is no such thing as an “ordinary” murder for the grieving family left behind. Many families feel these kinds of distinctions are a slap in the face.
- When the defendant and victim are related, families are even further torn apart. In a number of cases, for example, children must first cope with the murder of one parent and then suffer a new layer of trauma and grief when the other parent is executed for the crime.
CASE IN POINT:
Felicia Floyd was 11 when her father murdered her mother in a drunken rage. Felicia’s father was on death row in Georgia for 21 years, during which time the family was able to find some reconciliation. Felicia and her brother pleaded with the state not to execute their father, but were ignored. The execution left them orphans.
Can we make the system faster?
[The death penalty means victims’ families are] putting their lives on hold for years, sometimes decades, as they attend new hearings and appeals and relive the murder.
– Gail Rice, whose brother Bruce VanderJagt, a Denver policeman, was murdered in 1997
- The death penalty is irreversible. The process is longer because a life is on the line. Many of the extra procedures are legally required to reduce the risk of mistakes. Even these safeguards are not enough – at least 159 people have been exonerated from death row after waiting years or decades for the truth to come out. Streamlining the process would only heighten the already real risk of executing an innocent person.
- Even states with the fewest protections and a faster process take years or decades to carry out an execution. In Texas, for example, 20% of the people on death row who have been there for over twenty years.
We have an obligation to victims’ families to ensure that criminal justice policies are honest and help them rather than hinder them in healing.
– Brian McLaren